This is a difficult conversation for a lot of people because Gone with the Wind has been beloved by generations of Americans since it was first published. Criticizing something so entrenched in pop culture can be upsetting. Perhaps this is exacerbated when that work is so popular that it feels like it has become part of the fabric of American identity.
I’m going to do something a little unusual and cut through all the suspense immediately. Gone with the Wind is indeed a racist novel. The reason I want to say that right away is that the answer isn’t really the interesting or complex part of the conversation. The interesting and complex part is the level to which Gone with the Wind is racist and to what extent it was intentional. Please hear me out before you leave an angry comment.
I also want to say this before we go any further: it’s okay if you have fond memories of GwtW. It’s okay if you want to continue to like it. It’s okay if you want to read it. It’s something that is allowed to exist in the world. But we need to have conversations about the potentially insidious underpinnings of this book–especially since it has had such a powerful hold on our cultural identity in the United States for so long.
First, I need to confess something–and I know this is going to make a lot of people not take me seriously, but oh well. I did not finish this book. I couldn’t. It was driving me insane, and I eventually realized that this was not something that would get better. I tried very hard to hang in there and finish just so people wouldn’t be able to discredit me or dismiss what I want to say about this book, but you know what? Life’s too short to spend weeks upon weeks trying to finish a book just to prove a point. I still read over 500 pages of Gone with the Wind, which is half of the novel. I have done research into the parts I missed and found that there is no redemptive twist late in the story. I will also say that Brian at Bookish did finish this book and was having all the same problems that I was–and they didn’t get any better for him. His review is fantastic, and it was what finally convinced me that there was no point in torturing myself to finish this book. So if you want to discredit me for not going all the way, feel free to watch his review instead. It’s basically the same conclusion.
A Cautionary Note About Language
Please note that in this discussion I will frequently comment on ways “we” got Gone with the Wind wrong in the past. When I say “we” I am, of course, referring to my fellow white people.
This book also uses both offensive and outdated language when referring to people of color. I will not use any of those terms on my own but they will pop up in quoted material from the book and responses to those quotes. Please be warned if you are sensitive to such language. There is a current movement to use the term “enslaved” instead of “slave,” and I’m going to try to stick to that.
Interestingly, Mitchell avoids use of the n-word for the most part. In fact, the characters who use the n-word the most in Gone with the Wind are the black characters, who use it against other black characters. It’s a decision that doesn’t seem important on the surface but is actually pretty insidious on its own: it gives the reader the impression that the white characters are good-hearted and genteel while the black characters are vindictive and trashy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In lieu of the n-word, the white characters refer to their slaves and other black characters as “darkies,” a now-horrifying term that must have been more palatable to audiences in the 1930s. The term “negro” is also thrown about.
Why Does it Matter if Gone With the Wind is Racist?
Is Gone with the Wind racist? A lot of people don’t want to have that conversation at all, which is something I learned firsthand when I started reading this book and immediately started getting pushback from people who love the book and/or the movie adaptation. But it’s a conversation that is absolutely essential. Not just because GwtW really does have a racist streak, but because it’s important to take a hard look at just why we got this conversation so wrong for almost a century. It reveals a lot about privilege. It reveals a lot about the version of history we as a society have chosen to uphold. It reveals a lot about the festering rot of racism that has been part of the fabric of the American identity for too long.
Mitchell essentially changed the conversation about the American south in a way that followed through the Civil Rights era all the way to the present day. When you see a Confederate flag or an article of clothing that says “the south will rise again,” you are seeing the reclamation of the southern identity that Margaret Mitchell kick-started. Now let me state the obvious: I’m not talking about just anything southern or related to pride in the south. Your “put a little south in your mouth” t-shirt is fine and hilarious. I’m talking about items or slogans that are specifically tied to the south’s position in the Civil War. If you’ve ever wondered why the term ‘Dixie’ has been falling out of favor recently, it’s because it’s part of this conversation.
By the time Gone with the Wind was published in 1936, there was already a movement to reclaim the south. The Reconstruction era had been hard for white southerners (although arguably not as hard as life had been for the people of color who had suffered under slavery and continued to suffer under Reconstruction policies that meant that their lives did not significantly improve) and roughly two generations after the war ended, people began to work to fix the south’s, um, ‘image problem.’ As such, you can’t blame the movement on Margaret Mitchell specifically, but it’s hard not to center her given the way Mitchell made the old south an American obsession. She almost single-handedly brought Dixie back into pop culture and the conversation evolved from there.
Here’s the crux of it: Gone with the Wind is the single best piece of propaganda in the movement to reclaim the (white) southern identity in the early 1900s. It is also far and away the most lasting and enduringly popular piece of propaganda for the south. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty details of history and sociology in the United States for the last hundred years, but it’s made it impossible to move on from the Civil War. Any time you hear someone claim the Civil War was fought over state’s rights and not slavery, you are hearing echoes of what Margaret Mitchell was doing with GwtW. We are still having debates in 2022 about the Confederate Flag and whether or not Civil War soldiers and generals should be viewed as heroes. Let me emphasize that: we allow ourselves to debate whether or not seditionists who attempted to tear this country apart qualify as heroic patriots.
Look, I get it. It’s hard to admit that something you grew up loving isn’t actually so great. Or that it might be problematic. I get it because I’m in the same boat. I grew up watching Gone with the Wind. I grew up loving Gone with the Wind. My sisters and I once had an epic game of Barbie where we pretended our dolls got Scarlet Fever–but not Scarlet Fever like the illness. Scarlet Fever as in a fictional form of amnesia that made them believe they were characters in Gone with the Wind. I tell you that story because I think it’s important for you to know that I am one of many people who grew up with this story about Scarlett O’Hara and the way the Civil War devastated her family, and I loved it. I never read the book until now, but that’s not really an excuse for how I never noticed just how problematic it is.
I want to repeat that it’s okay if you like GwtW. But we’re going to talk about it. I’ve already had so many comments from people saying some variation of “I read Gone with the Wind at some point in the past and didn’t notice anything problematic about it” or “Yes, it’s problematic, but it’s a product of its time so you have to just let it go.”
The first statement (“I didn’t notice anything problematic about it”) reflects privilege–and again, I’m guilty of this, too. The movie adaptation tries to play it a little more subtly, but if you can read the book and not notice anything racist, you should question why that is–because it is not subtle. And that’s one of the hardest things about looking back at GwtW now: it’s incredible to me that I didn’t notice it being problematic before. The fact that I didn’t shows that I was somehow able to overlook it. The reason I say this shows privilege is that I, and many other people, are able to completely miss the racism in books like this one because we just don’t have to deal with it ourselves. We’re able to detach from it and ignore it because it’s unpleasant and we can choose not to acknowledge or engage with it. A lot of people don’t have that choice.
I can already feel a lot of people blistering and preparing to dismiss racist language in a manner that ties into the second statement, so let me add this: it’s not really the language that’s a problem here. You certainly could read this book without doing a critical analysis of the text, which means you might very well miss the subtext of what happens in the pages. The subtext is the real problem with Gone with the Wind, but we’ll get to that in a minute.
I have a lot of problems with the second statement (“it’s a product of its time”). The first problem I have with it is that it dismisses the problematic aspects of this book as relatively innocuous. My response to that is that maybe white people shouldn’t be allowed to make a judgment on what kind of racism qualifies as ‘innocuous’ (if any). And including racist comments in a book as a ‘sign of the time’ might help with setting a scene, but how exactly? Wouldn’t it be just as easy to leave those comments out? How is it useful to have exchanges like the one where Mrs. Merriwether tells Scarlett and Melanie they need to be stationed in a particular place during a ball because “We need you to watch the darkies with the refreshments?”
You can dismiss that as a small comment. You can call it relatively inoffensive. But it’s there and it doesn’t serve any useful purpose in the book except to add to a nearly subconscious idea that the characters of color are either too dangerous to be unsupervised or too untrustworthy not to steal and get drunk. It adds to the idea that if left unchecked by white people, they would get out of hand. And that is exactly what I mean when I say that it’s the subtext of this book that is the real problem.
As a brief side note, I’ve also seen a person argue that Gone With the Wind isn’t racist because Scarlett O’Hara is an unreliable narrator. Which, sure, she would be–if she were the narrator. She’s not. And yes, Scarlett is oblivious and self-centered, which means she’s never going to see how much damage her way of life has inflicted. The same can be said of a lot of the other characters in the book, like Mrs. Merriwether from the quote I just used. But a lot of this language and a lot of these ideas or suggestions about race don’t come from the characters at all. And as I said, the subtext is where this book really goes off the rails for me: it’s the argument the author seems to be pointing you toward without actually pointing a finger.
Furthermore, where does the argument about a book being a product of its time end? Racist language and ideas still exist in the world. Making excuses for them or saying there are “very fine people on both sides” gives them weight.
There’s also the matter of Mitchell’s adoration of Thomas Dixon, Jr., whom she credited as an inspiration for Gone with the Wind. Who is this Thomas Dixon, Jr. whose work Mitchell so publicly enjoyed? Only the man who has been credited as the father of white nationalism in the United States. Insert cringe-face emoji. His writing was also adapted into The Birth of a Nation, a 1915 movie legendary for being racist and for causing the Ku Klux Klan to be reborn in the 20th century. Perhaps significantly, Dixon himself denied allegations of racism and went so far as to claim that while his work must be uncomfortable for people of color to read, it was as much for their benefit as his white audience. Yikes.
As an aside, Dixon’s writing proves the point that the movement to reclaim the south existed before Gone with the Wind. The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915 (21 years before Gone with the Wind), and its source material, Dixon’s novel and play The Clansman, was published in 1905–the second installment in a trilogy of works that glorified the KKK as heroes). But Dixon’s work ultimately failed to capture the attention of the American public in the way Gone with the Wind did, and it certainly hasn’t had the staying power.
Mitchell, born in 1900, was so enamored of Dixon’s writing that she dramatized his work to perform in her youth. For one such performance, she made herself a Klan robe and hood out of a white crepe dress. And while it’s very difficult to parse Mitchell’s specific attitude toward race, and as much as people today love to play up this murkiness, Margaret Mitchell’s Wikipedia page openly acknowledges that she loved the writing of a white supremacist so much that she performed it in a Klan robe. And she specifically cited his writing as an influence on her portrayal of the south in Gone with the Wind.
That’s not good, y’all.
This is a novel that asks you to mourn for a way of life without question. It doesn’t want you to acknowledge or believe that this way of life only existed because of the subjugation and abuse of an entire race of people. It is a novel that will try to subtly cue the reader to believe that slavery wasn’t so bad and enslaved people actually had it pretty good. It is a novel that will also subtly cue the reader to believe that enslaved people are either unable to take care of themselves or cannot be trusted to have freedom. And it is doing all of these things well after the fact, which means that you cannot simply dismiss Margaret Mitchell’s work as a product of its time.
People can come up with a lot of different excuses for the problematic side of Gone with the Wind because it’s a lot harder to acknowledge that something they love has a dark side. It’s okay to love something that you know isn’t great. I love Hallmark romance movies. I will continue to watch them. But I can acknowledge that a lot of them use problematic framing that prizes “traditional” ways of life–the same language that gets picked up by people who want to argue that I shouldn’t be allowed to marry a man because it will erode “traditional marriage.” I enjoy these movies, but they uphold an ideal that never really existed and can cause actual harm when that ideal is used to limit how other people live their lives. Sound familiar?
I could go on a tangent here and rant about how nonsensical it is to act like “traditional” down-home country living is morally superior to city life, which ties back to Gone with the Wind because this is exactly what Mitchell is doing to make a case that the south, which depended on agriculture, is morally superior to the north, which depended on industry. I won’t. All I will say is that one can’t survive without the other so we should stop pretending that one is better than the other. We all need to get along and respect each other.
I’ve also seen it argued that since Mitchell seems to be aware of the hypocrisies of many of her characters, she could actually be trying to expose their hypocritical attitudes about race. I think that would be a very generous read of this book. There’s nothing remotely hypocritical about the way southern people approach slavery in the text of this book, so I think you would have to work overtime to try to make a case that Mitchell is engaging in satire.
No, Gone with the Wind isn’t satire. It’s a romance–not just between Scarlett and her love interests but also between Scarlett and the old south. And whatever you believe about Mitchell’s intentions regarding this book, the fact that the old south is framed romantically is the exact problem.
I feel like I should be building to a conclusion of some sort and the reality is I don’t really have one except that we need to be able to acknowledge the hurtful and damaging things that have lived inside of our society. If we don’t, we may never be able to heal and move beyond them.
There are certainly things to like in Gone with the Wind. But there are also plenty of things to criticize. Both of those things are true. As I’ve said, if you want to like Gone with the Wind, that’s fine. You are allowed. But you have to be willing to grapple with the criticism because it’s valid.
Is This Virtue Signaling?
It feels like a backlash to Gone with the Wind has been growing in my corner of BookTube and the Internet for a while now, but recently, I’ve started seeing some backlash to the backlash. There are people who are willing to acknowledge that Gone with the Wind has racist undertones but diminish the intent behind them. A lot of people like this dismiss the discussion around this book being problematic as virtue signaling (even if they don’t use that specific term). But here’s the thing: none of these complaints are new. People have been complaining about the racism in Gone with the Wind since it was published. Most of the people doing the hard work of pointing out the racism in this book have been people of color, and they have been rather deliberately dismissed. They have been talking about the erasure and re-writing of history that Gone with the Wind represents, and how problematic its depiction of the south both before and after the Civil War is.
Talking about this conversation as if it’s a form of virtue signaling makes it sound like this is a recent, desperate attempt to make allegations against something. It is not. It makes it sound like people are searching for ways to criticize something a lot of other people love. It is not. Again: there are a lot of reasons to criticize Gone with the Wind, and there always have been. And sure(again), there are also some things to love. I don’t think you can discredit people who don’t appreciate what Mitchell did.
Don’t believe me? Check out this New York Times article from 2020 about the long history of people of color calling out Gone With the Wind and getting mostly ignored.
What is Gone with the Wind About?
On the surface, it’s a romantic epic about a feisty southern woman struggling to save her family from ruin during a war that devastates their home (all the while torn between two primary love interests–one a noble son of the south who happens to already be married and the other a scoundrel opportunist whose loyalty shifts to the highest bidder). The reason I wanted this book to be my follow-up to my Pulitzer Prize deep-dive on Lonesome Dove is that there’s an interesting correlation between Margaret Mitchell and Larry McMurtry–and an even more interesting divergence.
You see, Larry McMurtry grew up in Texas at a time when people who had experienced the Old West were still alive to tell him stories about their lives and the time gone by in which they lived. Margaret Mitchell grew up in the South at a time when people who had lived before and during the Civil War were still around to tell her stories about a time and society that were “gone with the wind.” The stories McMurtry and Mitchell were raised on were essentially propaganda. For McMurtry, they were western stories about cowboys–and the subtle message lying under their surface was a justification of the ways cowboys often violently took control of land that didn’t belong to them. For Mitchell, they were stories about a genteel southern way of life ripped apart by the Civil War and the subsequent “misdeeds” of the Yankees–intentionally glossing over the very real implications of slavery and how that “genteel” southern life depended on the subjugation of people of color, who lived in deplorable conditions.
The key difference is that McMurtry grew up to question what he had been taught about the Old West and his work, Lonesome Dove included, called the myth-making of the American West into question. In contrast, Mitchell grew up perpetuating the lie she had been raised on. Whether or not she did so consciously is open for debate.
I feel like I’ve only done the most basic of plot descriptions but let’s all be honest: you already know what this book is about. What I will say here is that it’s a shame this book has such problematic underpinnings because Scarlett is actually a great character–and so is Rhett Butler.
How is Gone With the Wind Racist?
From the moment black characters are introduced in Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell employs racist stereotypes that make them look weak, stupid, ineffective, lazy, incompetent, and childish. The overall implication is that these black characters (and black people in general) are incapable of taking care of themselves without oversight from white people. Obviously, that isn’t true, but that’s the world Margaret Mitchell creates.
The very first time you meet black characters in GwtW is on page 6 of my edition, and it’s a doozy. The Tarletons are telling Scarlett that they avoided getting in trouble with their mother when they returned home the previous night because their mother was occupied in the stable trying to calm a new stallion that was proving too much for her enslaved workers to handle:
“The big brute–he’s a grand horse, Scarlett; you must tell your pa to come over and see him right away–he’d already bitten a hunk out of his groom on the way down here and he’d trampled two of Ma’s darkies who met the train at Jonesboro … When we got home, Ma was out in the stable with a sackful of sugar smoothing him down and doing it mighty well, too. The darkies were hanging from the rafters, popeyed, they were so scared, but Ma was talking to the horse like he was folks and he was eating out of her hand.Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell. Page 6.
Right away, you can see the twisted dynamic Mitchell employs throughout this book–and, alongside it, a reason I think it has gotten away with being racist for so long. And sure, this instance of racism comes from a line of dialogue–and maybe he’s exaggerating when he describes the enslaved people as “popeyed” and “hanging from the rafters.” But what bothers me is less the language that the character is using (which, to be clear, is abhorrent and even reflects racist caricatures of black people that were popular at the time Mitchell wrote this book) and more the implication of the story this Tarleton brother is telling. What happened? His family purchased a strong-willed horse that none of the enslaved people could handle, but his mother could. Mother Tarleton is being lifted up as strong beyond what society at large would have expected for a woman at the time. Unfortunately, she is being built up at the expense of the black characters, who come across as ridiculous. There’s a profound feminist streak in Gone with the Wind that is easier for many readers to focus on (especially if that reader happens to be white). But look at the subtle message Mitchell is also sending about people of color. As I said before, it’s the subtext that makes Gone with the Wind problematic, and you could easily breeze by this paragraph without stopping to think about what it implies.
A mere two pages later, Scarlett begins to hear sounds of the workday on Tara (her family’s plantation) coming to a close with the following line: “To the ears of the three on the porch came the sounds of hooves, the jingling of harness chains and the shrill careless laughter of negro voices, as the field hands and mules came in from the fields.” Again, this might seem to be an innocuous sentence on the surface, but if you look underneath it makes the impression that the
field hands enslaved people are happy–not beaten down, sad, or angry. How could they be oppressed people if their laughter is shrill and careless?
Both of these examples perfectly capture the push and pull of Mitchell’s narrative: these enslaved people aren’t unhappy, she urges her reader to believe–why they can even be shiftless and lazy! They have carefree lives unburdened by responsibility or honor, which they can’t handle anyway. This dynamic goes into hyperdrive once Scarlett returns to Tara and is forced to run her family plantation on her own. Scarlett yearns for the carefree life she knew before the war but must work hard and smart in order to keep food on the table for her family and the remaining enslaved workers–another section that pushes a hard feminist narrative at the expense of the novel’s black characters, who (in Mitchell’s portrayal) are too weak-willed and dumb to be of any use unless Scarlett tells them exactly what to do.
Sure, Scarlett’s sisters are also portrayed as too weak-willed or vain to be of much use unless Scarlett orders them around. But in their case Mitchell deploys an element of tragedy: they aren’t supposed to have been brought this low. And sure, there’s an element of tragedy that the enslaved people who used to work in the house must also do fieldwork now, but in their case the tragedy is that even their lowly hierarchy was demolished by the Yankees.
For the most part, the white characters are merely tolerant of the enslaved people surrounding them. The care and keeping of them is portrayed as a sort of honorable burden instead of what it actually is: a situation white people created and actively enforced which was detrimental to the well-being of the enslaved people. Mitchell carefully positions it so it looks as though the white characters feel a sense of loyalty and duty to their enslaved people. Even more tellingly, Mitchell makes it clear that this loyalty is, for the most part, a one-way street. Enslaved people who leave plantations during the war (and after) are described as a disgrace: people who are disloyal and, perhaps worse, foolish.
The implication is, of course, that the people who are truly bad for enslaved people are not the plantation owners who kept them enslaved but the Yankees who set them free. In comparison to southerners, Yankees are portrayed as crass, manipulative, and dangerous. They are thieves, schemers, rapists, and opportunists. Mitchell makes a case that the enslaved people don’t see the dangers inherent to the Yankees, which in this novel seems like one more character flaw on an already long list. It implies that enslaved people who leave plantations to seek better fortune elsewhere are turning their backs on family–or at least the people who really cared for them–only to fall victim to people who will take advantage of them.
It bears repeating at this point that Mitchell wrote this novel well after the fact. Gone with the Wind was historical fiction even when it was published in 1936 (seventy years after the end of the Civil War). You could try to argue that Mitchell is trying to do something similar to what Ernest J. Gaines did in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, a novel in which Gaines traces the life of a woman born in slavery who lives long enough to take part in the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s–exposing that life didn’t actually improve much for African Americans after they were emancipated. You could argue that, but I don’t think you would be right, since unlike Gaines, Mitchell’s only argument for the way African Americans were treated after the Civil War is that they were better cared for when they were enslaved. She would rather act like it’s a shame that they aren’t part of a mythical family with the white plantation owners anymore.
And yet the entire notion of enslaved people being part of the plantation family is a thin facade. Before and during the burning of Atlanta, Scarlett proves her worth to the reader by rising to the occasion and managing to deliver Melanie’s baby and safely escort herself, Melanie, Scarlett’s son, Prissy, and Melanie’s newborn baby out of Atlanta. It’s a genuinely thrilling, suspenseful sequence in the book. But once again, this feminist moment comes at the expense of Prissy, who reveals herself to be less than useless to Scarlett. How does Scarlett react to this? By beating Prissy and threatening to sell her.
Now look: you can call Scarlett’s reaction an unfortunate response to stress. You can call it a disappointing moment of anger. You can call it whatever you want: the fact that her default in this situation was to threaten Prissy in a way that undermines her very worth as a human being is extremely revealing. Think of everything it means. First, it reminds Prissy that her entire life and livelihood depends on the whims of Scarlett and the O’Haras. It reminds her that she is disposable and replaceable. It reminds her that she can be separated from her family and her friends at a moment’s notice. It reminds her that she has no rights. It’s bad enough that Scarlett has this power over Prissy, for her to use it as a casual threat is despicable.
The facade of black characters being family is further undermined by the way Scarlett observes the new reality in the wake of the south losing the war. Consider this lengthy statement made to her in the middle of the novel (for context, the character speaking is lamenting that under Reconstruction, southerners were not allowed to vote unless they took an oath of allegiance to the United States, forsaking their loyalty to the south):
‘If the Yankees had acted right, I’d have taken their oath of allegiance but I ain’t now. I can be restored to the Union but I can’t be reconstructured into it. … And if they want to come down on you for extra taxes a dozen times, they can do it. Just like a [n-word] can kill a white man and not get hung or–‘ He paused, embarrassed, and the memory of what had happened to a lone white woman on an isolated farm near Lovejoy was in both their minds… ‘Those [n-word] can do anything against us and the Freedmen’s Bureau and the soldiers will back them up with guns and we can’t vote or do nothin’ about it.’Pages 524-525
So on the one hand, the enslaved are like disloyal children for turning their backs on their “families,” and on the other, they are a dangerous menace that the Yankees are allowing to run unchecked, leaving the white women of the south in peril. Which is it?
There are two black characters who are allowed to have a sense of influence in the book: Mammy, an enslaved woman in the O’Hara household, and Uncle Peter, who runs Aunt Pittypat’s home in Atlanta. Indeed, at one point Scarlett remarks that the only problem with Uncle Peter is that he practically owns the three white women in his care (Aunt Pittypat, Scarlett, and Melanie) because they depend on him so much. Ultimately, that’s a feminist complaint wrapped up in a package with subtly racist decoration because what Scarlett is really complaining about is that white women being unequal to white men means that they occasionally have to listen to their black servant. And it’s interesting that Scarlett’s complaint about being a white woman is that it makes it feel like a black man owns her, because the reality is quite the opposite. And she doesn’t seem to be worried about how it feels to be owned by someone else when she’s lording over Uncle Peter. Which she does, because the reality of this power dynamic is that Uncle Peter is something of a nuisance who can be easily swatted back down if he oversteps.
Mammy, meanwhile, ostensibly runs the O’Hara household with an iron fist. Except that Mitchell is much more interested in the notion that Scarlett’s mother is actually the quiet force that makes Tara tick. A lot of time and energy is spent making sure the reader knows that it is Mrs. O’Hara, not her husband, who is actually in charge of the plantation. Which is why it’s seen as a tragedy when Mrs. O’Hara dies of illness. And when that happens, it’s Scarlett who steps in to fill the void. Mammy is ultimately just one more burden Scarlett must bear when she tries to get Tara back on track. Mammy is a character who is all form and no substance. Her supposed agency is an illusion.
I could go on and on and on with examples but we could be here all day. I’ll add a section at the bottom of this post for more quotes that take a look at the racism in this book.
The Irish and Feminist Complications
Complicating matters, there are two threads in Gone with the Wind that could almost be said to promote tolerance. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both are ultimately to Mitchell’s benefit in the real world. One of these threads, I’ve already talked about a bit, which is that GwtW is a surprisingly feminist novel. I won’t spend a lot of time talking about that here, but it’s one of the most prominent messages in the book. The other deals with Irish immigrants. You see, Mitchell had Irish heritage and although her family dated back to the Revolutionary War in the United States, there was still a lot of anti-Irish sentiment in this country for a long time. And there were other Irish immigrants who married into Mitchell’s family over time, including her grandfather. This is reflected in the novel when Scarlett’s mother, who comes from a longstanding American family marries an Irish immigrant who could only be described as “new money.” Mitchell spends a frankly unnecessary amount of time telling the story of this courtship and why it was unlikely. The end result is that Mitchell spends almost as much time normalizing the Irish as she does othering people of color.
The cognitive dissonance could give you whiplash.
Scarlett’s father is portrayed as unapologetically crude compared to the rest of the genteel south, but in a loving way. Mitchell seems to be daring her readers not to be charmed by this hardworking and honorable man who came from nothing in Ireland and never gave up until he was one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Georgia (it is worth noting that Mitchell’s grandfather, an Irish immigrant, similarly managed to amass a great deal of wealth and respect in Atlanta). If nothing else, she seems to argue, the reader will have to begrudgingly offer Scarlett’s father their respect.
If only she had afforded the same respect and thought to every character. If only she had been conscious of the fact that Gerald O’Hara’s rise to prominence came at the expense of the enslaved.
That’s why this book is so difficult to get a handle on. It’s unapologetically feminist and promotes tolerance of immigrants–but only if they are the right color and socio-economic status.
Margaret Mitchell’s Background
The details of Mitchell’s life before Gone With the Wind will feel familiar for anyone who knows Scarlett O’Hara intimately. Mitchell was born in the Atlanta area in 1900, and while she was far more literary than her fictional counterpart, she seems to have been an irrepressible force in her family and community–often organizing her friends to take part in plays she staged (even if they didn’t want to). At 18, Mitchell lost her mother during the great influenza epidemic of 1918, which forced her to return home following her freshman year at Smith College to run the household in her mother’s place. Never one to be kept down, Mitchell caused a scandal by performing a “sensuous dance” at the final charity ball of the season (refer to this PBS biography for this detail and many others).
Like Scarlett, Mitchell also had more than one engagement and marriage during her lifetime. Her second marriage, to John Robert Marsh, lasted until the day she died at age 48.
She briefly worked as a journalist but an ankle injury forced her to give that up in 1926. While she was lying about recuperating, she began to write Gone with the Wind, which would be published in 1936. If not for that broken ankle, we may never have gotten this divisive novel.
Throughout her life, Mitchell’s attitude toward race is difficult to parse. A great deal of this is because she ordered that much of her writings be destroyed upon her death so they wouldn’t get out. This included letters, unfinished manuscripts, early drafts of Gone with the Wind, and more. We do know that Mitchell was profoundly enamored of the south, her lifelong home, and that she loved stories of the old south as a child.
She dismissed criticism by the NAACP and other African Americans in the wake of Gone with the Wind‘s publication, noting in a letter to a friend that “I do not intend to let any trouble-making Professional Negros change my feelings towards the race with whom my relations have always been those of affection and mutual respect.” On the surface, this seems to be a signal that she has a friendly relationship with people of color. Upon closer inspection, though, the use of the capital-P “Professional” to describe the troublemakers could indicate that she has “affection and mutual respect” only for people of color who stay in their prescribed lane. You could interpret it either way, which is emblematic of why it’s so difficult to figure out what Mitchell actually believed.
In the wake of Mitchell’s untimely death, the New York Times released an article about her will (perhaps unsurprising since her estate was estimated to be worth $250,000 in 1949 currency). You might think that the Times would have centered the article around the rights to Gone with the Wind, which were worth a considerable amount of money, but no (the rights were given to her husband, by the way). Instead, the focus is on the fact that Mitchell left her “faithful” African American house servant, Bessie Jordan, the house that Jordan “had been buying from her in weekly payments” (plus an additional $500 for Bessie and $200 for Bessie’s daughter). And while this is framed as a kind gesture (and in a certain light it is), it also feels… transactional. Especially since the quality that both Mitchell and the Times cite as worth rewarding in Bessie is her faithfulness. Once again, you have the idea that Mitchell’s ideology prizes people who stay in their lane.
But maybe not, because it’s also true that Mitchell set up scholarships for black medical students as part of her work with the Red Cross and donated to Morehouse College, an HBCU. The woman is quite an enigma. It’s difficult to figure out when this support began (read: whether it predated Gone with the Wind), and even more difficult to figure out if that would even matter. Because if it was an attempt to rehabilitate her image in the face of NAACP protests, it wouldn’t make much sense for many of these donations to be anonymous. And it’s also true that Gone with the Wind‘s success gave Mitchell the means to be charitable in the first place.
Mitchell never published another book despite the success of Gone with the Wind. There could be many reasons why, but Mitchell herself claimed that she was always too busy to focus on writing. It is true that she was deluged with requests for speaking engagements, interviews, and the like. She and her brother also spent a great deal of time attempting to protect her copyright of Gone with the Wind abroad, where copyright laws were vaguer. On top of all that, Mitchell took the time to personally respond to each letter she received about her book. Given the popularity of her novel, it feels safe to assume that this would have amounted to a lot of correspondence.
Harper Lee famously never published another book after To Kill a Mockingbird, and in her case, a lot of that had to do with the pressure she felt to live up to her debut novel’s incredible success. It’s not hard to imagine that Mitchell would have felt similar crushing pressure. She clearly found at least a little time to write since PBS mentions in a biography of her that among the writings she ordered destroyed upon her death was “a novella in the Gothic style, a ghost story set in an old plantation home left vacant after the Civil War.”
Margaret Mitchell died in 1949 after she was struck by a drunk driver on her way to the movies. She was so famous by this time that the hospital where she was in critical condition for five days was deluged with calls from fans (including a telegram from President Truman, who asked to be kept up-to-date on her condition, as well an offer from inmates of a local prison that they would donate blood if needed).
Whatever she believed in her lifetime, there’s no denying that Mitchell was well-beloved and left quite a legacy behind.
Is Gone with the Wind Any Good?
To a lot of people, yes. To me, no. The book’s problematic areas get in the way of any enjoyment I could possibly get from it, and I think the deliberate
romanticizing white-washing of the American south is unconscionable.
Beyond the political ramifications of this book, Mitchell’s writing is only serviceable. This is a classic example of commercial fiction, and I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. Commercial fiction can be good, and being in tune with what readers want to entertain them is a skill. Mitchell certainly has that ability. But at the same time, there are passages in GwtW that are clumsy. It can also be overwritten, and it’s seriously too long. Mitchell steadfastly refuses to say anything in a single page that she could say in ten instead–and a lot of the time, this means a great deal of repetition.
Admittedly, though, Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler are fantastic, thoroughly realized characters. And as noted, the section of the book dealing with the fall of Atlanta is genuinely thrilling.
Your mileage may vary in regard to the content of the book itself and what it means, but hopefully we can at least all agree that when it comes to the writing, form and skill take a backseat.
There’s the feminist aspect of the book, which I guess makes up some ground–but not enough to overcome the more problematic areas of the novel for me. The thing most people talk about when it comes to this book is the romance storyline. I don’t think it’s actually romantic at all, but who am I to judge? I suppose it’s not any worse than other not-great romances that have been idealized from classics like Wuthering Heights all the way to modern YA like Twilight.
Beyond that lies everything I’ve talked about already in regard to just how problematic and, I think, downright damaging this book’s depiction of life in the south, its depictions of black people, and the way it romanticizes a way of life that depends on the subjugation of an entire people.
Are There Film Adaptations or Sequels?
Um, yes. To put it mildly. The 1939 film adaptation is famous and much-beloved, despite embodying many of the same problems as the book. To be fair, the book is a great deal more racist than the movie–but the movie still functions as a propaganda piece for the Old South and still whitewashed the evil of slavery, so it really is just as bad. And the fact that the movie is more toned down than the book only reflects that there had already been backlash about the book’s racism, particularly from the NAACP, which spooked the studio into handling the matter with a bit more sensitivity. There were even protests from African Americans, which went largely ignored by the white general public, who were too busy creating a trend for “all things Dixie” (I refer again to the New York Times article from 2020).
You could make a case that this trend predating the movie means that the movie isn’t responsible for Gone With the Wind‘s legacy. It was already wildly popular. But the movie was just as popular (if not more) than the book. If you adjust its box office for inflation, it would still be the most successful movie of all time. It is also just as beloved by a not-insignificant population. And the fact that it won 8 Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and a landmark win in Best Supporting Actress for Hattie McDaniel. It also received 2 honorary Oscars–one for use of color, and the other for “use of coordinated equipment.”) could be seen as legitimizing both the film and its message–just as the Pulitzer Prize did for Mitchell’s novel.
Fads die away over time. Perhaps without such a monumental screen presence, Mitchell’s novel would have faded–and so would the fervor for the south that it created. Instead, the two have fed off of each other for nearly a century, remaining beloved in the hearts of many. Personally, I would contend that the success of the film adaptation secured Gone With the Wind‘s lasting cultural legacy.
Scarlett, an authorized sequel written by Alexandra Ripley, was published in 1991 and despite getting roasted by critics, it was a runaway bestseller that became a TV movie event. I have not read the book but I saw the miniseries, which was highly melodramatic. The fact that it was so immune to reviews is essentially proof of how much the public loves Gone With the Wind.
The Mitchell estate tried again in 2007 with Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig, which tells the story of GWtW from Rhett’s point of view and goes beyond where Mitchell’s story ends (pretending that Scarlett never happened, of course). The book was a modest success and nowhere near as beloved, perhaps thanks to the way McCaig retcons Rhett Butler into being a more romantic figure who is significantly less of a rogue. The Mitchell estate was pleased enough with the book that it allowed McCaig to write a prequel about Mammy entitled Ruth’s Journey, which was published to very little fanfare in 2014.
There have been numerous unauthorized sequels and spin-offs, most significantly Alice Randall’s 2001 novel The Wind Done Gone. This novel was the subject of a fierce lawsuit between the Mitchell estate and Randall’s publisher. Perhaps they were particularly incensed by Randall’s book because it is an alternate view of the events of GWtW told from the point of view of Scarlett O’Hara’s illegitimate sibling, Cynara–the daughter of Scarlett’s father and Mammy. The Wind Done Gone was able to be published only if it had a sticker on the cover labeling it an “unauthorized parody” and if the publisher made a donation to Morehouse College.
Is Gone with the Wind Readily Available?
Um, yes. The book has never gone out of print and has remained popular ever since it was published. You shouldn’t have a problem finding a copy–if you want to try this for yourself, that is.
America was headlong in the Great Depression in 1936, but that didn’t keep people from spending $3 for a copy of Gone With the Wind, which became a runaway bestselling sensation and sparked a craze for southern ephemera. Here are some other events and milestones from that year:
- Gone With the Wind was the bestselling book of the year (as you could probably tell)
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt was re-elected as President in a landslide victory, Roosevelt’s second of four Presidential election wins
- The Hoover Dam was finished
- Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny On the Bounty won Best Picture at the Academy Awards
- The highest-grossing movie of 1936 was The Great Ziegfeld, which would go on to win Best Picture at the following year’s Academy Awards ceremony
- Richard Hauptmann, who was convicted in the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder, was executed. This case partly inspired Agatha Christie’s Murder On the Orient Express, which was published two years earlier
- The infamous 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, Germany, overseen by Adolf Hitler as propaganda for Nazi Germany
- At those same Olympic games, Jesse Owens won four gold medals in track and field and in the process broke records, becoming an African American hero, and also becoming a symbol of how wrong Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy was
- The New York Yankees won their fifth World Series
What Was Gone with the Wind’s Competition for the Pulitzer?
Six books were designated as finalists and submitted to the Pulitzer Board for consideration. Gone With the Wind was immediately taken up as the selection for the prize without much further competition. The other nominees were George Santayana’s The Last Puritan, Roger Burlingame’s Three Bags Full, Harriette Simpson’s Mountain Path, Alice Tisdale Hobart’s Yang and Yin, and Walter D. Edmond’s Drums Along the Mohawk.
Drums Along the Mohawk is a particularly interesting case because it has many similarities to Gone With the Wind but lacks an enduring legacy. It was also a runaway bestseller (bested only in sales by Gone With the Wind that year). It was historical fiction set during a time of war (in this case the American Revolution). And in 1939, it was also adapted for film. Perhaps the key difference is that unlike Gone With the Wind, the film version of Drums Along the Mohawk profoundly altered the plot and failed to capture awards.
Significantly, another American classic that dealt with race and the American South was published the same year but failed to make the finalists for the Pulitzer: William Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! Faulkner’s reputation (particularly with the Pulitzer Board) took a lot of time to get going, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he was not among the nominees that year. He ultimately became one of only four authors to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, but both of those came after his 1949 Nobel Prize for Literature legitimized his stature as an author of repute. Faulkner himself had a complicated relationship with race but his work has largely aged much better than Gone With the Wind. I encourage you to watch this video from Brian at Bookish for more.
Should Gone With the Wind Have Won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction?
Frankly, no. As stated, I don’t think it’s great literature (although it certainly does succeed very well in what it sets out to do). I also think that what the book stands for is pretty reprehensible. And I hate what it did to the American conversation around the south and the ways we still struggle with that conversation as a result.
Given the benefit of nearly a century of hindsight, it feels pretty astonishing that Absalom! Absalom! failed to capture the prize instead. And as troubling as Faulkner can be on race, I think it would have been a better choice.
In Conclusion: A Challenge
If you are someone who read Gone With the Wind in the past and disagree that it’s problematic at best, give it a reread. If you still don’t really see what the fuss is about, read Toni Morrison’s Beloved. That novel covers slavery from the perspective of the people who actually lived it and the traumas it continues to afflict. It’s a novel that is about everything Margaret Mitchell would rather deny.
And if you’re someone who believes that the O’Haras treated the enslaved people who lived with them humanely, definitely read Beloved. The plantation the protagonist of that book came from before escaping was supposed to be a comparatively good slave owner and yet the traumas the enslaved survived are staggering.
Other Pulitzer Prize Deep Dives
His Family (1918) • Now in November (1935) • Lonesome Dove (1986) • Beloved (1988) • Less (2018)
Deep Dives On Pulitzer Years With No Winner
Racist Quotes From the Book
Let’s take a look at some of the writing to see just how ingrained racism and racist language is in this book.
When she spoke, her voice was not so slurred as most negroes’ and she chose her words more carefully.Page 62
Over behind the barns there was always another barbecue pit, where the house servants and the coachmen and maids of the guests had their own feast of hoecakes and yams and chitterlings, that dish of hog entrails so dear to negro hearts, and, in season, watermelons enough to satiate.Page 93
Scarlett stared at her and had an impulse to shake her. Negroes were always so proud of being the bearers of evil tidings.Page 353
It was incredible that she could be in such a fix. Not a friend, not a neighbor to help her. There had always been friends, neighbors, the competent hands of willing slaves. And now in this hour of greatest need, there was no one.“Willing” is an interesting choice of word. Page 364
From the shadows, Scarlett glared at her, too tired to rail, too tired to upbraid, too tired to enumerate Prissy’s offenses–her boastful assumption of experience she didn’t possess, her fright, her blundering awkwardness, her utter inefficiency when the emergency was hot, the misplacing of the scissors, the spilling of the basin of water on the bed, the dropping of the new born baby. And now she bragged about how good she had been.
And the Yankees wanted to free the negroes! Well, the Yankees were welcome to them.Page 371
When Prissy still lingered, shuffling her feet and mouthing, Scarlett gave her another push which nearly sent her headlong down the front steps.
“You’ll go or I’ll sell you down the river. You’ll never see your mother again or anybody you know and I’ll sell you for a field hand too. Hurry!”Page 373
“Pork, how many darkies are here?”
“Miss Scarlett, dem trashy n_____s done runned away an’ some of dem went off wid de Yankees an’–“Page 407
Was there no end to what “They” had done? Was it not enough to burn and kill? Must they also leave women and children and helpless negroes to starve in a country which they had desolated?Interesting that only the black people are referred to as helpless. Page 408
How stupid negroes were! They never thought of anything unless they were told. And the Yankees wanted to free them.Page 409
The upstairs hall seemed to shake as Mammy’s ponderous weight came toward the door. Then Mammy was in the room, Mammy with shoulders dragged down by two heavy wooden buckets, her kind black face sad with the uncomprehending sadness of a monkey’s face.Page 415
Time and again, Ellen had said : “Be firm but be gentle with inferiors, especially darkies.” But if she was gentle the darkies would sit in the kitchen all day, talking endlessly about the good old days when a house n____r wasn’t supposed to do a field hand’s work.Page 432
“Hah! They promised all the black wenches silk dresses and gold earbobs–that’s what they did. And Cathleen Calvert said some of the troopers went off with the black fools behind them on their saddles. Well, all they’ll get will be yellow babies and I can’t say that Yankee blood will improve the stock.”Page 449
“I won’t work in the fields like a darky! You can’t make me. What if any of our friends ever heard of it?”Page 455
“Mist’ Gerald buy my Prissy so I wouldn’ grieve and I doan forgit it. I is part Indian and Indians doan forgit them as is good to them. I is sorry ’bout my Prissy. She mighty wuthless. Look lak she all n____r like her pa. Her pa was mighty flighty.”Page 456
And she had had a few unpleasant experiences with the Freedman’s Bureau. She had gathered, also, that some of the free negroes were getting quite insolent. This last she could hardly believe, for she had never seen an insolent negro in her life.Page 521
Negroes were provoking sometimes and stupid and lazy, but there was loyalty in them that money couldn’t buy, a feeling of oneness with their white folks which made them risk their lives to keep food on the table.Page number misplaced
Wilkerson and Hilton furthermore told the negroes they were as good as the whites in every way and soon white and negro marriages would be permitted, soon the estates of their former owners would be divided and every negro would be given forty acres and a mule for his own. They keep the negroes stirred up with tales of cruelty perpetuated by the whites and, in a section long famed for the affectionate relations between slaves and slave owners, hate and suspicion began to grow.Page 522
The example above is particularly notable because it seems to be arguing that people of color wouldn’t be upset about their lot in life if the dastardly Yankees would just mind their own business and stop telling the enslaved that they deserve better.
Those damned n—-r lovers daring to come here and taunt her about her poverty!Page 539
That day the worst she could fear was that Tara would be burned over her head. But this was worse–these low common creatures living in this house, bragging to their low common friends how they had turned the proud O’Haras out. Perhaps they’d even bring negroes here to dine and sleep. Will had told her Jonas made a great to-do about being equal with the negroes, ate with them, visited in their houses, rode them around with him in his carriage, put his arms around their shoulders.
When she thought of the possibility of this final insult to Tara, her heart pounded so hard she could scarcely breathe.Page 539
“They haven’t proved it yet but somebody killed this darky who had insulted a white woman. And the Yankees are very upset because so many uppity darkies have been killed recently.”Page 562
This was the point at which I stopped reading. There were many more quotes I could have added from the first half of the book but I don’t want to risk copyright infringement to prove a point. 😉